The United States’ top diplomat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, says New Zealand is converging with other countries in its approach to China.
“I think what is most striking to me, both here in New Zealand, in the region more broadly, as well as in Europe, in Northeast Asia, is an extraordinary convergence of approaches to dealing with the incredibly complex and consequential relationship that we all have with China,” Blinken said.
Blinken made the remarks during a visit to Wellington, the first he has made to New Zealand and the first by an American Secretary of State since Rex Tillerson visited in 2017.
Blinken briefly met Prime Minister Chris Hipkins before a longer bilateral meeting with Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta. He was welcomed to Parliament with a pōwhiri. It was the first pōwhiri to take place before Parliament’s new pou, which were unveiled before dawn.
Blinken took after many northern hemisphere countries which are renewing their interest in the region as geopolitical tensions ramp up and Pacific nations reckon with a more assertive China. His “convergence” remark cut against the common perception of New Zealand as something of a soft touch when it comes to China.
“If you look at or listen to what the Prime Minister has said, what the Foreign Minister has said as well as what we’ve said, you’ll see that convergence, that commonality of approach,” Blinken said.
He said recent remarks from Hipkins and Mahuta were evidence of this converging approach.
“From the perspective of the United States, we believe it’s our obligation to responsibly manage this relationship,” he said, adding he wanted to make sure “competition does not veer into conflict”.
Blinken arrived in New Zealand from Tonga, where he opened a new US Embassy, and will travel on to Brisbane where he will be joined by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin for talks with the Australian Government.
Mahuta and Blinken also discussed trade, although there was less alignment here.
Blinken was touting the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), US President Joe Biden’s tentpole regional trade policy, which falls short of being a proper trade agreement.
The IPEF is viewed by many as a poor cousin to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade agreement which the United States might have been part of had former president Donald Trump not kiboshed the idea.
Mahuta said she had reiterated to Blinken that New Zealand would “welcome a US return to the CPTPP in the spirit of finding new frontiers for our partnership”.
Blinken did not substantively respond to this remark. Questioned about becoming a CPTPP member, he said there was a “vigorous and strong trade and investment relationship” between the two countries.
“I think that’s only going to grow. Our focus right now is on building out the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework,” he said.
Of particular interest in Blinken’s view was whether there is a place for New Zealand in the Aukus nuclear submarine agreement between the US, Australia and the UK.
Aukus pillar I, the main part of the agreement, will allow the sharing of nuclear submarine technology between the UK, Australia and the US, eventually leading to the construction of nuclear-powered submarines for Australia.
New Zealand’s nuclear-free status and minuscule defence budget make participation in pillar I a nonstarter, but there had been speculation New Zealand could participate in pillar II, which involves sharing other technology and co-operating in areas such as cybersecurity to, in the words of the original Aukus announcement, “enhance... joint capabilities and interoperability”.
Some form of association or participation in pillar II was put on the agenda after the US national security co-ordinator for the Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell visited in March.
After that meeting, Defence Minister Andrew Little said New Zealand had been “offered the opportunity to talk about whether we could or wish to participate in that pillar II aspect of it”.
With Aukus at such an early stage it is not clear what New Zealand involvement or association would look like. Aukus is not a trade agreement or formal defence alliance, meaning involvement would not mean some form of formal assertion - it is possible that any New Zealand involvement in pillar II would be looser and more informal.
Blinken said that “on the second pillar” of Aukus, the “the door is very much open for New Zealand and, and other partners to engage as they see appropriate going forward”.
“New Zealand is a deeply trusted partner, obviously a Five Eyes member, we’ve long worked together on the most important national security issues. So as we further develop Aukus, as I said, the door is open to to engagement,” he said.
The remarks contrasted slightly with those made less than a day earlier at the same podium by Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese who said there were “no plans” to extend the Aukus agreement beyond its current three-country parameters.
“We already have an important relationship in defence and one if the things pillar II is about is essentially use of tech … there are no plans at this point in time to extend beyond the Aukus pillar I and pillar II arrangements,” Albanese said.
“That doesn’t mean that there won’t be co-operation across a range of areas as well including access to technology, including complementarity including interoperability,” he said.
“It makes sense for nations which co-operate defensively for part of the democratic world as well to have increased co-operation,” he said.